When referee Felix Brych blew the final whistle, Åge Hareide looked dismayed. Failing yet again to win at home, but having just received news that Belgium shattered Finland’s dreams in the last minute, he knew that Denmark would have to nervously settle for a third place in Group B behind Russia and pray to a higher power. Denmark are no longer masters of their own destiny: two points will probably not be enough to qualify as one of the best third-placed teams. The end of their campaign beckons. And it might be the end of the Hareide era too.
The goalless match against Stanislav Cherchesov’s red army earned the Danes their second point in three matches. As in the 1-1 draw against Finland and the unfortunate loss against Belgium, Denmark were once again unable to deliver an assertive performance in front of their home fans. Even if they are to enter the knockout rounds, in which there can be no more draws, the question remains clear: Do the Danes actually have what it takes to win a game?
The question fits well with what’s been going on for the Danish national team in the last three years. Since November 2016, Denmark have only lost one match in ordinary time (against Belgium on Thursday), but at no point have they been overwhelmingly good against weaker opponents, except for perhaps 30 minutes in Dublin two and a half years ago. It seems that the Danish team need a strong opponent to play well.
They’ve hinted at what they’re capable of – we saw moments of dangerous attacking play against Belgium – but they have gotten far too little out of their advantage, considering the difference it should have made to play in front of 40,000 home fans, cheering them on in three consecutive matches.
Against Finland, the Danes were superior in possession for about 80 per cent of the game and had by far the best chances, but they still managed to throw away the victory in the end. Against Russia, they struggled once again. Over the course of the afternoon games, Finland had overtaken both teams and were about to snatch second place in the group. A Finland win over Belgium would definitely have been the end for the Danes.
In this evening’s far from pretty contest, both teams were primarily concerned with holding the defensive line, until reality dawned upon Denmark with ten minutes to go. That it took so long was inexplicable: the crowd had been howling for more attacking intent as they followed events in St. Petersburg. Suddenly the Danish players released all their forces, swarmed around the opponents’ box and bombarded the Russians with long balls. Andreas Cornelius showed his aerial superiority, and at one point the ball dropped to Martin Braithwaite close to goal, but he completely mishit it. Hareide’s team finally decided to push their luck, but they didn’t get anything out of it.
With their wasted opportunities throughout the group stage, the Danes have made things unnecessarily difficult for themselves. Coach Hareide will have to endure some uncomfortable debates in the coming days. He had radically rebuilt his team for this game against Russia, apparently to replace an unconvincing Yussuf Poulsen and solve the long-lasting problem on the left back. He switched formations to his old 3-5-2, and made four changes in the line-up that had started against Belgium. But after 36 minutes of play, captain Kjær had to come off due to a back injury, which forced the Norwegian coach to revert to 4-3-3 and caused a couple of nervous situations in the Danish defence.
Had Denmark won the game, Hareide’s renovation of his team may have been deemed praiseworthy. But it seemed to just inject more anxiety into the line-up. Christian Eriksen again vanished from the game in the second half, and Martin Braithwaite once more failed to live up to the expectations following his six remarkable months at FC Barcelona. Granted, there were some bright moments: Powerhouse Andreas Cornelius stirred things up and made it difficult for the Russian defenders Semenov and Dzhikiya, but he only got his chance to shine because the Danes had decayed into a very basic – Norwegian – style of football. Now, the fans feel a bitter certainty that they cannot rely on the team.
Hareide has of course suggested a different interpretation. He declared that he was proud of his team after the first two matches. “I didn't expect us to dominate so much,” he said. But on closer inspection, the Danes dominated only the first half against Finland, and they should at least have had a draw against Belgium thanks to an outstanding Kasper Schmeichel. Against the Russians, who – except for a couple of half-hearted counter attacks – made absolutely no contribution to the game, Danish possession again proved to be of no consequence.
Yes, it seems that it’s hard to beat the Danes. But it also looks like the Danish team haven’t worked out the recipe for how to win. If they do find themselves in the round of 16 next week, it will certainly be with the feeling that they haven’t really earned it.